I sold my Viper, but the memories I'll keep
Tom Kowaleski was a veteran of public relations. He had worked in senior positions at Chrysler, General Motors, BMW and most recently, Lincoln, making him one of the few industry insiders to have worked for each of Detroit's three automakers.
The following is written by auto industry veteran Tom Kowaleski. The words are his own, but the memories now belong to everyone thanks to his willingness to share.
I just sold a car. Nothing new. Millions do it every day. But my car was a 1995 Dodge Viper, so maybe it was a bit more unique since just 12,000 were built. And like others selling a car that's been a part of the family for close to 20 years, this was a confluence of emotions for me. I was sad to see it go, but happy to have the cash and one less big, shiny, under-utilized object in my life.
Viper was a major part of my education in the automobile business. I worked at Chrysler in the '80s and '90s, and the Viper's development – indeed, its whole story – was critical to Chrysler's revitalization and comeback into credibility. The Viper program was done on a shoestring. It came to life as the result of four incredibly strong personalities agreeing on a single vision. It was a car no consumer research would ever support. It was a car one no one else would ever think of building. Yet, it became the flame that started the fire of belief in the next life of Chrysler.
The first time I laid eyes on the Viper, I was invited to join a final review session with Bob Lutz, the Vice Chairman of the company at the time; Francois Castaing, the new head of Engineering and recent AMC arrival; and Tom Gale, the head of Design and the most senior 'real' Chrysler person. The fourth member of the gang, the scalawag racing legend Carroll Shelby, was not in attendance.
I can still see the car sitting under an old tarp. Not one of those fancy, shrink-wrapped neoprene body suits used today, but a worn, amorphous, grey dog of a cover. Worse yet, the car was in an equally scruffy hall of the old Chrysler Highland Park, MI styling dome. The building was dark, dingy, on its last legs – exactly how everyone on the outside pictured the company.
We assembled, and someone says, "Pull it off." A giant red sphere assaulted our eyes and its rawness looked like a Shelby Cobra that had been stepped on and semi-squashed. The only difference was that the nasty snout grew a crosshair grill. Initially, Gale didn't want it to look like this. Truth be told, Lutz wanted something closer to his beloved Autocraft Cobra. But Gale kept enough "Dodgeness," in the package, and Lutz reluctantly let go a bit. The Viper we cheered is what resulted. "This'll show em," growled Lutz.
Viper was rooted in Chrysler's historic character of doing things differently; focusing on its creative engineering and counter-programming the "Big Two," neither of which would ever dare build such a car. Sure, Chevy had its Corvette. But this was different. It embodied what separated Chevy from Dodge. They were bigger. We had more guts and were willing to take bigger risks.
Raw, squat, no door handles, goofy offset pedals, powered by a mongrel of a V10 truck engine cast in aluminum, and breathed upon by two engineering mavericks borne from the racing circuits of the world. Who would ever think this could be inspiration for turning around pundits, Wall Street, shareholders, suppliers, dealers and the public on the troubled, cash-starved, beleaguered, struggling Chrysler Corporation as it was known thanks to this list of liberally used adjectives in every story?
Just a month or so after first laying eyes on the car, Castaing and I were walking into the press day of the reborn 1989 Detroit "International" Auto Show, where Lexus and Infiniti were making their worldwide introductions. Chatting about the press conference where we would soon unveil the Viper, Francois blurts out, "We're gonna build it." Of course no one had a precise roadmap on how, but why let that stop the desire? Just weeks after, interviews began to find the right "band of brothers" who would spend the next three years together getting the job done.
Viper came to life in a space that once housed the former American Motors styling studios, the same place where the infamous Pacer was conceived. Hard to believe, I know. Fifty-five gallon drums with hunks of wood straddled between them were the work tables. It was 1989, but the whole thing had the feeling of 1939. The first engine and chassis mule hid under the skin of a Corvette. This car was going together in the best and most cost efficient "shade tree" engineering manner.
At an early program review, the team was struggling to replicate the interior look and feel of the concept, while designing the production version to meet the myriad corporate "guidelines." These had nothing to do with safety regulations, but rather were the standards of consistency built into every Chrysler vehicle. They defined such things as the sightlines from the driver's seat, pedal placements and reach to controls. In essence, the Viper was being developed to meet the same feel, touch and sight standards of a K Car!
Laboriously going through each of these challenges, Castaing was getting frustrated listening to his team. Finally, the seat/pedal placement problem becomes the proverbial camel's straw. "Break some eggs," he said, got up, walked out of the room, and from that day forward the pedal offset to the left was signed off.
Heat was an ever-present problem from the massive V10, both under the hood and in the side-mounted exhaust system. One day Lutz took the late automotive journalist David E. Davis, Jr. on a head-snapping ride around the proving grounds, demonstrating that the prototype had the goods. Returning to home base, he stopped and the car promptly began to torch itself – driver and passenger escaping. I'd like to say the two lit their cigars on the flames, but that wouldn't be true.
Francois conducted a solo drive at the same location with the team anxiously awaiting his return and review. Picture this: He gets out of the car, leans nonchalantly against the driver's door and proceeds to deliver his critique. What's that smell? Smoke begins to rise. His pants had caught on fire from leaning against a side exhaust yet to have the insulation installed. Without realizing it, the world's first – and likely only – Armani "Bermuda shorts" suit was just created.
Finally, in 1991, Viper was ready for the first of several big debuts. The first two "production intent" Vipers would be the official pace car and backup for the Indianapolis 500. A shakedown was planned at the Speedway the last weekend of April. Shelby was to be the pace car driver in the race and was doing the final test. Only it was pissing rain. But unlike the real event, this show had to go on.
I hopped into the passenger seat and we took off in a sideways spray down the pit lane. No top, no back window. We entered the track at the exit of Turn 2. We started gathering speed down the back straight. Into Turn 3, the short shoot, Turn 4 and then a blast down the main straight. We went low entering Turn 1 and track out in the short shoot at a buck twenty-five. I turned my head right and there's the wall, a gnat's width between the door and me, spray nailing my face. Better to look straight ahead, I thought. And then, oh great, a wall of rain was coming right at us as we blew down the back stretch.
We were doing something like 140 mph then, and Shelby grabs himself in the crotch. What's he know that I don't? Out pops his hand with a rag and he leans forward rubbing the inside of the windshield. The swirl effect has rain coming into the car from behind and under the sport bar and through the hole where there's no window.
Damn, I'm flying around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a racing legend on his second heart at 140 miles per hour in a driving rainstorm in one of only two cars in existence, and all I can think about is – I never thought it would end like this. Then it was over. We slowed, entered the pit road, Carroll looked over and deadpans, "Dang it Tom, with all this excitement... I forgot to take my heart rejection pills today."
Rolling out of view for the last time watching the Viper leave my life, with these memories it's likely always to be a part of it.
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